Paul Hindemith and the Trio Op. 47: Steps toward a mature style

April 1, 2003

Paul Hindemith was born in Hanau, Germany, in 1895. Unlike most of his composer contemporaries, who came from the privileged classes, his origins were humble ones.

Hindemith’s father, Robert, was a manual laborer and amateur zither player, who, despite a necessarily tight budget, saw that Paul and his siblings received musical training. Robert Hindemith raised his children with strict discipline, especially in terms of their music education. He took them to the local opera house, often on foot, and quizzed them on the way home, rewarding unsatisfactory answers with spankings. Later, Herr Hindemith organized his children into the Frankfurt Children’s Trio. Guy Rickards suggests that it was “despite” this “exploitative” upbringing that Paul and his brother Rudolf both went on to successful musical careers.

Paul Hindemith’s earliest formal musical studies were violin lessons with a local teacher. He later studied violin and composition at the Hoch Conservatory in nearby Frankfurt, whose faculty included Clara Schumann. Upon returning from the First World War, Hindemith adopted the viola as his primary instrument.

Hindemith was active as a musician and conductor. Besides his brief stint as a soldier, Hindemith’s young adulthood was spent as director of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra and as founder and violist of the celebrated Amar Quartet. He aggressively promoted his own compositions by performing them in public and in the recording studio.

Hindemith had strong ideas about how his works should be performed. He often called upon a small circle of musicians he knew and trusted to premiere his works. As his fame as a composer grew, and his premieres became high-profile events, he showed loyalty to these musicians even when concert promoters urged him to hire better-known (and perhaps better-skilled) musicians.

Hindemith composed profusely; his huge body of works includes short pieces for children, epic operas, and nearly everything in between. His methodical process of composition allowed him to work quickly and produce under pressure. He was proud of this ability, even after being scorned by none less than Richard Strauss. Strauss asked Hindemith how long it had taken him to write a certain work. “Four days,” was Hindemith’s reply. “That’s just what I thought,” remarked Strauss.

Strauss reportedly asked Hindemith once, “Why do you compose atonal music? You have plenty of talent.” Hindemith countered, “Herr Professor, you make your music, and I’ll make mine.”

Hindemith was approached by the rising Nazi party, who offered him a position as head of the Nazi music committee. Speculation by historians suggests that this was meant to bring Hindemith’s well-known and controversial talents into conformity, or to keep him close enough to maintain control. Hindemith turned down the post.

In 1940 Hindemith emigrated to America, probably for reasons both financial and political. He lectured at Harvard University, and in fact felt that teaching helped his composition. He said, “Myself, I cannot compose all the time. I don’t get ideas just sitting around waiting for them. They come from somewhere, and I get them teaching.” In this way, his career reflected more the Classical composer than the Romantic; he was not one to lie around hoping for inspiration, but one to sit down and hammer out a sonata on a deadline; not one to complain of writer’s block, but one to find a way to keep busy while thinking about new ideas.

Hindemith’s works were often seen by contemporary audiences as falling within a general category of “atonal music” with Schoenberg and company, though, heard at a distance of some decades, Hindemith’s works seem much more harmonically levelheaded than those of the serialists. In fact, Hindemith felt that his works were quite tonal. He saw tonality as a force like gravity, one that might be momentarily defied but never completely ignored. “All music is tonal,” he was known to insist, since, after all, all music is made of tones.

Hindemith’s mature works were sometimes called Gebrauchsmusik by the critics of his day. Hindemith hated the term and its various English renderings (“useful music” being the most prevalent). The term initially referred to Hindemith’s tendency not to write music for the virtuoso performer, with superfluous displays of technical skill, but music playable by the gifted amateur. However, it later came to bear a connotation of functionality-music to play in the background while something more important was happening. Hindemith naturally objected to his works being categorized as bland mood music. He saw his works as art, suitable for performance in a concert hall before an attentive audience.

Hindemith was a private man. He often told interviewers, “Anyone who wishes to know about me should look at my works.” At the same time, he insisted that his works didn’t need to be analyzed. “I cannot give analyses of my works because I don’t know how to explain a piece of music in a few words (I would rather write a new one in the time). Besides, I think that for people with ears my things are perfectly easy to understand, so an analysis is superfluous. For people without ears such cribs can’t help.”

Notwithstanding Hindemith’s reticence about his private life, and despite his reluctance to analyze his own work, he was open about sharing his compositional thought process. While teaching at the Academy of Music in Berlin, he used the classroom as a workshop to codify and explain his techniques. The result of this effort was The Craft of Musical Composition, an exhaustive treatise published in 1937.

The Craft of Musical Composition deals primarily with the issues of using the twelve pitch classes with freedom and independence within a structure that is fundamentally tonal. He sets forth a sort of tonal cosmology, in which pitches, intervals and chords relate to each other in terms of distance from a tonal center. Hindemith often compared this arrangement to a planetary system, with bodies orbiting one another at various distances. The book has been criticized as being somewhat “speculative” and “problematic.” Nevertheless, it provides a clear insight into Hindemith’s compositional method and lays important groundwork for his successors.

In 1928, Hindemith wrote the Trio op. 47, for viola, heckelphone or tenor saxophone, and piano. Hindemith had become acquainted with the heckelphone, a sort of tenor oboe, while visiting Heckel’s shop to purchase a bassoon. He wrote the Trio for this little-known instrument, but later authorized the substitution of the tenor saxophone. James Pauling indicates that Hindemith “no doubt” preferred the heckelphone’s sound and suggested the saxophone as a purely practical substitution. However, in the his opera Cardillac, Hindemith specifies that a heckelphone may substitute for the tenor saxophone-hardly a practical suggestion even in 1926, when tenor saxophones were already far more ubiquitous-and adds the disclaimer that “the effect, as intended by the composer, will not be attained as a result thereof.”

The Trio shows elements of a maturing, distinctive style.

The piece is in two movements. The first has three sections: a piano solo, an “arioso” for heckelphone and piano, and a heckelphone-viola duet with piano accompaniment. The piano solo is decidedly imitative, though using a much freer style of imitation than, for example, a Bach invention. Material from this first section forms the basis of the following two sections, a device characteristic of Hindemith’s work.

The second movement, entitled “Potpourri,” is divided into four independent sections: “Schnelle Halbe” (“in fast half notes”), “Lebhaft” (“lively”), “Schnelle Halbe” (again), and “Prestissimo”-all fast tempi. The first two sections use strict thematic counterpoint, while the last two are in a free toccata-like style.

Hindemith was fascinated by musical instruments, and collected and learned to play many contemporary and period instruments. His interest in instruments is also apparent in his compositions. He wrote many pieces for less-common instruments and for unusual combinations of instruments. In the case of the Trio, the choice of the heckelphone is surprising but effective (and even the substitution of the saxophone is unexpected in chamber music). The combination of heckelphone, viola, and piano is undeniably unique.

Hindemith’s fondness for dotted rhythms is clear in the Trio, especially in the Arioso of the first movement. Here the heckelphone plays dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythms, while the piano plays dotted sixteenth-32nd note rhythms. This rhythmic disparity, along with the sparseness of the piano accompaniment, creates a sense of the melody floating over the accompaniment.

Another Hindemith trademark is the free use of time signatures, especially 9/8 and meters that use the half note as the main pulse. Hindemith does not hesitate to adjust bar lines to accommodate his melodies. In the piano introduction to the first movement, he shifts from 9/8 to 12/8 in the nineteenth bar to keep the accented notes together; in the next bar he switches to 6/8 (effectively making up the lost time from the previous bar) and then returns immediately to 9/8. In the common-time Arioso, he inserts a single measure in 5/4 immediately before rehearsal letter C, creating an extra element of tension to be resolved by the return of the first theme at C.

Hindemith’s most characteristic technique, the use of chromatic, dissonant counterpoint (especially fugato), is in evidence throughout the Trio. The most notable example is the concluding Duett of the first movement. The viola introduces a theme in the first measure, which is echoed nearly verbatim by the heckelphone starting in the eighth measure. The differences between the viola melody and heckelphone echo are a few changed notes and, more interesting, a shift of placement within the bar. The viola begins its melody on the second eighth note of the 6/8 measure, but the heckelphone starts the same melody on the fourth eighth note.

Hindemith’s affection for the perfect fourth in melody writing is revealed in the opening statement by the piano. In the second and third measures of the first movement, the melody uses three ascending fourths, marked with accents: C to F, E-flat to A-flat, and A to D. This motive later becomes the basis of the first Arioso theme. Another notable use of melodic fourths is the piano accompaniment figure beginning in the seventh measure of rehearsal letter O, in the second section of the second movement. Here the piano uses descending fourths and whole steps in a sequence.

Fourths used as a harmonic building block can be seen clearly in the final four measures of the second movement. Here the piano plays a stack of fourths (B-E-A-D-G-C), which climbs diatonically nearly two octaves. This leads into a final unison statement by the viola and heckelphone, with all three instruments in bare octaves for the last “chord.”

Hindemith clearly establishes tonal centers, and bases his development on degrees of departure from, and return to, these tonal centers. This, of course, is by no means an unusual method, but Hindemith’s approach breathes new life into three hundred years of harmonic practice. An unmistakable example is the Arioso. The segment begins with an open fifth of F-sharp and C-sharp. In the next several measures, however, both A-sharp and A-natural are used with equal prominence, thwarting any attempt by the theorist to discover a conventional “key.” This is a favorite technique of Hindemith’s: using octaves or fifths as a tonal center. Throughout the Arioso, each change of texture uses a prominent F-sharp, often in unaccompanied solo or in octaves. This use of the F-sharp is analogous to the use of a tonic chord at cadence points, and, like a cadence, is often used to demarcate sections of the form.

In light of the techniques and theories used in Hindemith’s compositions, it is surprising that works like the Trio sound so diatonic. The strength and plainness of Hindemith’s themes makes them eminently listenable, even within a dissonant or cacophonous context.

The Trio is also characteristic in the techniques that it avoids: programmatic material, serialism, atonality (in the sense of all twelve tones being equal), and display of technical virtuosity. Hindemith studiously avoided all of these, while his contemporaries used them extensively-even exclusively.

The Trio demonstrates all the essential characteristics of his mature works, though usually considered to have been written before his prime years. Beginning in the 1930’s, Hindemith turned his attention increasingly to the symphony orchestra, composing fewer chamber works. For this reason, the Trio may be considered a culmination of Hindemith’s achievements in chamber music.

Paul Hindemith died in December 1963, at the age of 68. His wife, Gertrud, wrote to a friend that he had died of a “kidney attack” and advanced arteriosclerosis, but Guy Rickards suggests that a lifetime of “overwork” finally exhausted him.

Hindemith’s unique voice, both radical and accessible, innovative and rooted in tradition, justify his inclusion as one the great composers, not only of the twentieth century, but of Western music’s hallowed history.


Guy Rickards, Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze (London: Phaidon, 1995), 16.

Rickards, 17.

Rickards, 18.


Rickards, 29.

Geoffrey Skelton, Paul Hindemith: the man behind the music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1975), 11.

Ian Kemp, Hindemith (Oxford, 1970), 7-8.

James E. Paulding, “Paul Hindemith (1895-1963): A Study of His Life and Works” (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1974), 157.

Skelton, 74-75.

Skelton, 11.

Paulding, 157.

Skelton, 75.

Skelton, 72.

Kemp, 10, 28.

Skelton, 19.

Skelton, 13.

Skelton, 17.

Skelton, 14.

David Neumeyer, The Music of Paul Hindemith (New Haven: Yale, 1986), 142.

Skelton, 15-16.

Skelton, 11.

Kemp, 7.

Neumeyer, 23.


Skelton, 13.

Paulding, 156-157.

Gunther Joppig, “Heckelphone 80 Years Old,” The Journal of the International Double Reed Society, no. 14 (referenced online March 2003; originally published 1986).

Paulding, 155.

Rickards, 106.

Tommy Fowler, “Paul Hindemith” (essay published online, referenced March 2003).


Skelton, 15.

Matt Boynick, “Paul Hindemith (1895-1963),” The Classical Music Pages (published online, referenced March 2003; material extracted from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music).

Skelton, 293; Rickards, 166.

Suggested Reading

Hindemith, Paul, A composer’s world: horizons and limitations, (New York: Doubleday, 1961).

Hindemith, Paul, The craft of musical composition, (New York: Schott, 1970).

Hindemith, Paul, Elementary training for musicians, (New York: Schott, 1949).

Hindemith, Paul, 1895-1963, Trio, piano, heckelphone & viola, op. 47 (Mainz: B. Schott’s Sohne; New York: Schott Music Corp., 1957).

Kemp, Ian, Hindemith (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Neumeyer, David, The music of Paul Hindemith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

Noss, Luther, Paul Hindemith in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, c1989).

Paulding, James E., Paul Hindemith, 1895-1963: a study of his life and works, (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1974).

Rickards, Guy, Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze (London: Phaidon, c1995).

Skelton, Geoffrey, Paul Hindemith: the man behind the music: a biography, (London: Gollancz, 1975).

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